You wouldn’t know this was Jessica Chastain’s first time hosting Saturday Night Live based on the confidence, poise, and gonzo comic energy she brought to her debut. She popped in nearly every sketch of the night, bolstering an episode that was as light on standouts as it was on duds.
As typically happens with movie stars on their first go-round, the monologue was fine, if nothing special. Chastain began by poking fun at her film career, noting to the audience the kinds of roles she typically plays. “I’m always cast as a strong powerful woman,” she explained. “I usually say lines like. ‘Take the shot, dammit.’”
But of course, Chastain’s hosting gig came on the first anniversary of the Women’s March, in which once again hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated and protested around the country. Chastain, an outspoken Trump critic and gender-equality advocate, said she felt inspired by what transpired Saturday. “I wish I could have been there, marching alongside them,” she said.
But Chastain did find a way to contribute to the cause, with a little help from the SNL cast members. Recreating that infamous scene from The First Wives Club, Chastain, Cecily Strong, and Kate McKinnon performed “You Don’t Own Me” with an earnest edge. Meanwhile, Aidy Bryant sported a pussy hat from the audience, while a few men briefly joined the women onstage, only for Beck Bennett to essentially mansplain the importance of men “listening” at this important moment in history.
Unfortunately, this was a pretty listless cold open. Set at the White House briefing room and beginning with Aidy Bryant’s Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, the episode offered obligatory nods to the ongoing government shutdown crisis and the debates it’s started: whether Mexico is really paying for “the wall,” whether President Trump’s demands have been remotely “consistent,” and whether “Shutdown Schumer” should be blamed for Congress’ inability to strike a deal.
Then, as the lesser SNL cold opens tend to go, the sketch just moved right along to the other big political news of the week: the president’s health. The controversy over Trump’s doctor’s assessment was mined for laughs as the doctor, played here by Beck Bennett, addressed reporters from the podium with more updates. Giving his “unbiased, 100 percent accurate health assessment,” the doctor painted a picture of the president’s health in increasingly intimate terms. “He’s been pounding pineapple juice to keep everything sweet,” he said before acknowledging that Trump aced a “sex exam” he administered.
As for Trump’s cognitive exam: “He passed it with flying colors. Almost no hints.”
“Congratulations to Donald Trump, who managed to keep our government open for almost one whole year,” Colin Jost quipped to begin this edition of “Weekend Update.” Indeed, Jost and co-anchor Michael Che couldn’t help but find themselves amused by the sheer poetry of Trump’s first anniversary as president being met with a government shutdown. “Why is shutting down our entire government even an option?” Jost continued. “Even production on House of Cards didn’t shut down after the main guy was accused of being a full predator. If a fake government can keep going, so can we.” (Jost also cracked that after Kevin Spacey was fired over sexual misconduct allegations, he was replaced with “a female president.”)
As for the other highlight, that’d have to be the cohosts’ focus on Stormy Daniels, the porn star who alleged in 2011 that she and Trump had an affair. The details of their alleged courtship, as she described them to In Touch, disappointed Che, who expected them to be “crazier,” but Jost had ample material to play off. Remembering in particular that Daniels claimed Trump told her she was “beautiful and smart” just like his “daughter,” Jost quipped that it was “the grossest thing a man has ever said to Stormy Daniels.”
Cecily Strong then appeared on “Weekend Update” as Daniels herself, playing her, bluntly, as an appropriate hero for the times. “I’m like a liberal hero, even though I’m a Republican porn star who loves Sarah Palin,” she began. But then she noted how many ways Americans have failed each other, and why it’s only natural that many people’s faith has ended up in, well, a porn star. “I get that I’m not what these people envisioned their hero would look like, but guess what America?” she said. “I’m the hero that you deserve right now.”
Best Sketch: “What Even Matters Anymore?”
The bar for an SNL game show sketch is, at this point, very low: It’s the show’s absolute favorite format for throwing a bunch of celebrity impressions or character types into a structured setting, without needing to work too hard on story or tension. Typically, these sketches leave much to be desired, save for Kenan Thompson’s always-welcome Steve Harvey impression.
But this week SNL actually did something a little bit novel with the format in the form of What Even Matters Anymore. The sketch found Chastain as the embittered, exasperated, beaten-down host asking contestants questions about the various over-the-line behaviors of the president and his administration, and wondering aloud why there seem to be no consequences. Initially, the sketch is intriguing if minor, but Chastain’s total commitment to the character throws it into another dimension. By the end, the cast members are referring to each other by their real names and the sense of helplessness pervading the sketch seems to have crossed over into real life.
Best Digital Short: “Fresh Prince”
New featured player Chris Redd has been popping in sketches for a while now, and he expectedly shined in his biggest showcase of the season thus far. “Fresh Prince” finds Redd singing the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song, only as a never-ending story where the stakes get increasingly high (and the music gets faster). The digital short gets surreal as, at one point, the jumpy track is juxtaposed with Method Man gunning down Uncle Phil (played by Kenan Thompson), and it’s impressive that the short sustains itself for its three-plus-minute running time. Leslie Jones and Jessica Chastain also make solid cameos.
Best Chad Appearance: “Doctor’s Orders”
First Julia Louis-Dreyfus, now Jessica Chastain? SNL continues to be enamored with Pete Davidson’s Chad character, a creation of utter simplicity who inspires intense emotions and actions around him. This Chad installment is one of the funnier ones, as we find him in a hospital bed, on the road to recovery, with his doctor (played by Chastain) fighting her feelings for him. As is typical for Chad sketches, “Doctor’s Orders” works in contrasts, with Chastain’s epically romantic monologue met only with Chat muttering “okay” or with a juvenile chuckle. But really, this is worth recommending alone for Chastain’s delivery of the line “God, that’s sexy” to close things out.
Best Simpsons Joke: “Google Talk”
A Google Talks session on bullying moderated by Jessica Chastain went in an unexpected direction when one audience member described the reason he’s a victim of harassment: He looks just like Bart Simpson. “Google Talk” is one of those thinly premised sketches where the joke is just weird and specific enough to work. Mikey Day sits in the audience with bleach-blond spiked hair and a red T-shirt, and very dryly describes the ways in which he’s bullied: people laughing at him like Bart’s nemesis Nelson Muntz, yelping catchphrases like “Ay, caramba!” or “Don’t have a cow,” and being told to “go back to Springfield!” Chastain’s moderator wants to give him a chance to speak out and defend himself, but when she asks his name, there’s really no going back.
Worst Sketch: “Amazon’s New Headquarters”
Here’s an instance of SNL prioritizing topicality over, well, comedy. “Amazon’s New Headquarters” comes fresh off the news of which cities made the company’s shortlist, but the sketch itself is pretty lukewarm, without any real bite. The idea here is that cities are desperately competing to bring Amazon’s second HQ into their territory, but the commentary is weirdly neutral on Jeff Bezos and Amazon (was there a product placement conflict here?), rendering this non-corporate-critique feeling a little pointless. At least Chris Redd does a great Cory Booker.
Best Troye Sivan Performance: “The Good Side”
Troye Sivan’s SNL debut was awfully good: He confidently and sexily nailed a pair of love songs, including the internet sensation “My My My.” But it was the second performance where Sivan really shined: His rendition of the quiet, emotional “The Good Side” was deeply affecting, and restrained and low-key in a way that SNL performances tend not to be. This was, no doubt, a good introduction to audiences unfamiliar with the former vlogger.
Episode MVP: Cecily Strong
Cecily Strong was all over tonight’s episode in supporting parts, often stealing the show — whether as the contestant who gradually figures out that really nothing “Even Matters Anymore,” or as the loud and brash Bostonian trying to lure a major company her way in “Amazon’s New Headquarters.” And the utility player really shined on “Weekend Update” as Stormy Daniels, adding yet another sure-to-be-recurring character to her already impressive repertoire. Plus: She took part in singing “You Don’t Own Me,” which on this Women’s March anniversary certainly counted for something.
Will Ferrell, one of the biggest SNL breakouts of all time, is returning to host the sketch comedy series for a third time. His musical guest will be country superstar Chris Stapleton.